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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 10, 2008

Once more to Papa’s house: Strength at the broken places

By Tyler Schuling

Illustration by Forest Byrd

“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I very much hate to leave it.”

— Ernest Hemingway

At this point in the story, Hemingway’s hero, Robert Jordan, has been fatally wounded in battle, and he’s alone on a hillside, thinking about what he’s done in his life and whether it mattered.  Just days before, he fell in love with a beautiful woman.  He’s now dying, surrounded, and the enemy is approaching.  He tries to assure himself that he’s led a good life and argues with himself as Hemingway’s heroes do.

So come times in life — not necessarily points when we are alone, outnumbered, and dying as the enemy draws closer and fires, but when we are at a crossroads and, almost naturally, think back and consider whether what we have done has made any difference to ourselves or to others.  If we’re paying attention. 

Whether the saying came from a book, a mentor, a friend or a stranger, I’m not sure, but I often remember these words — a life not observed is no life at all.

Which brings me back to Hemingway.  For years, I had tried to read him.  But, no matter how many times I started or how hard I tried, I could never finish one of his books.  His characters seemed contrived, his language and storytelling too simple.  How, I thought, could anyone make anything of what he’s written and why would anyone care? 

The year after I graduated from college, my family went on a cruise.  At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought all I’d done up till then had meant nothing. 

I’d gone to school for 18 years and, just as I’d gotten comfortable with myself and finally felt confident in how I saw the world, it was over.  I was now in a new world that was very different from the comfort of a university or classroom.  There were no requirements, no known steps, no upcoming tests.  My purpose and happiness, it seemed, were disappearing as the distance grew between graduation and the here-and-now. 

One of our stops was in Key West, where Hemingway once lived and did a lot of fishing.  Though I didn’t think much of him — for that matter, I didn’t think much of anyone or anything at the time — I thought, what the hell, if anything, this will be the only time I’ll be here to see his house. 

If you’ve ever been there, you know about the cats.  They’re everywhere, creeping through doorways and lounging around his pool.  Some of them have extra toes.  It’s very peculiar, so I was told, but, as I didn’t have a cat, I had to think about what a normal one looked like. 

When we were there, I bought A Farewell to Arms.  For years, I’d told myself that I had to come around and learn to like Hemingway.  I tried to read the book many times, but I couldn’t do it, no matter how hard I tried or how many times I went back to it.  Normally, if I’m disinterested in a book, I put it away and never give it another thought. 

All those years that it passed unread, on a shelf or in a closet, I felt that pang of guilt an English major feels when he dislikes an author who is held in high regard. 

So finally, about a month ago, I got through it.  Fast.  And with ease.  I loved it.  And I went out right away and bought another one of his books.  

After I’d finished them and got back to talking to people, I called my friend Sarah.  We talk regularly about what we’re reading and writing. 

I told her about Hemingway. 

“I’ve read two of his books in a week,” I said.  Though I can tell her anything and she’s one of the most approachable people I know, I felt bad because I was sure I had told a lot of people, and probably her, that I detested him. 

We threw the subject around for awhile — about why we like certain things at certain points and why we grow out of them — and I told her, while not claiming any responsibility, about how surprised I was that I enjoyed his books. 

It had something to do with the complexity and uncertainty of the state of the world or with world politics or of the upcoming presidential election or something of the sort and how Hemingway’s characters, though they face hard times and circumstances, say things very simply and how, when I read Hemingway, I don’t have to think as hard as I do when I read or write the news.

And now I have a different perspective on this man I once despised and what Robert Jordan, injured and still fighting, tells himself.

It is with admiration and relief that I now think back on visiting Hemingway’s home and of the confused young man who had walked through it, surrounded by strange cats.  But, even more so, I feel reassured because, though I was once afraid and unsure about the world and the part I was playing in it, I’m still fighting and still paying attention. 

You’re special, just like everybody else

By Jo E. Prout

Ah, Spring! Graduations abound in the spring — except that, of course, it’s now summer, so we’re behind the rest of the country.

Ah, Summer! Summer, a time when we reflect on all the opportunities offered to, met, or squandered by students who, by some brilliant stroke of luck, were graduated this year. There were legions of graduates, too, because graduation long ago left the hallowed halls of high schools and colleges. Graduation has become an annual social event enjoyed by any families who have a student in transition.

My family, for instance, had two graduations this year. One child graduated from nursery school, and the other graduated from fourth grade. Both children completed the requirements of their grades and learned what they were supposed to learn this year. Both ceremonies were moving and celebratory. Both ceremonies offered scads of awards for excellent, and dubious, accomplishments.

After sitting through years of graduations, both for work and social reasons, I’ve come to dread the awards portion of the ceremonies. Worse than long-winded speakers and flash-happy parents, the conferring of awards can ruin even the best of moods.

Awards are awful for everyone. They’re awful for the students who are near-constant award winners. Yippee! They learned what they were taught! Why does that deserve recognition? First, they’re publicly embarrassed by teachers, then they’re teased or bullied relentlessly by the non-winners. I’m sure they sit and sweat out every annual ceremony, graduation or not, but what the hey? They might as well get an award for their wall for putting up with all of it.

Awards are awful for the students who do good work, too. They see that same kid get five awards and they know that kid just has a knack for getting every “t” crossed. So the good workers sit there and suffer through. Worse, they see the kids who barely passed get trophies because they worked with special teachers. Kid logic here: Be someone you’re not, i.e. a perfect t-crosser; or stop trying, find yourself a label, and grab a trophy. Or, just sit there. Graduation only lasts another hour. These kids are the ones who will make the world go round. They can afford to bide their time.

What about the goof-off kids? The ones who are happy enough getting by and who come to school to hang out with their friends? Awards ceremonies aren’t so bad for them. While they are stuck sitting on uncomfortable chairs, that award-winning t-crosser always throws a great party they can look forward to afterward.

So, there we are, in the season of the “haves,” and the “have-nots,” unless you graduate from preschool, in which case you’re automatically a “have” so that your self-esteem isn’t irreparably damaged.

One child this year was named Most Lovable. Most Lovable? After the ceremony, one grandmother asked me if I thought my daughter or her granddaughter were most lovable. Apparently, neither was, because a third little girl took that one home.

My daughter took home Most Likely to be a Pop Star. I have 30 years of classical musical training. I nearly choked on my Juicy Juice. She does have some pretty cool moves, though, for a 5-year old.

Here are more interesting awards:

— Achievement in Reading: My son has gotten this for three years straight. He’s sick of it. My family reads. Some family members can’t balance a checkbook or make normal conversation, but they’re all avid readers. He might as well get an award for being a brown-headed kid. When I see this award given to anyone, I envision the recipient living in his mother’s basement, reading each new Star Trek novel and memorizing Dungeons and Dragons manuals. Chills run down my spine;

— Most Improved: If that isn’t a back-handed compliment, I don’t know what is. As my husband noted, you must be coming from somewhere to get that one;

— Achievement in Art: There are always three kids in the whole class who don’t get this award, and they’re the ones who, in the yearbook, list art as their favorite subject. Isn’t art an expression and not an achievement, anyway? I wonder if those three kids were haves, have-nots, or goof offs? I wonder if any of them will choose spray cans and overpasses as their medium?

— Citizenship Award: Yes, comrade, you too can earn the citizenship award if you come to our weekly meeting and distribute this leaflet. The description of this award makes me think it should be renamed the Civility Award. Maybe Miss Manners should hand it out;

— Achievement in Math: This award reminds me of the nice man with a Ph.D. in physics who had a breakdown and now works at a less-demanding job for greatly-reduced pay. I just want to hug the recipient and tell her to hang in there. She, too, can be a “have-not” and be a great contributor to the economy, if only she doesn’t let the achievement award get to her. Let’s face it: If you’re up on top, you can reach for great things, but you also have a long way to fall. Poor kid. Who propped her up there, anyway?

We did. The thing about these awards is that we expect them. We expect six awards, the same six awards, to be given each year, regardless of the individuals in each class. Teachers have to select six names from 20 kids they taught, and try to slide the students into the pre-made award slots. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to attend a graduation with only one award for the kid who raised money for tsunami victims, or two awards for the kids who competed in a national competition? Wouldn’t it be nice if valedictorians and salutatorians were the ones recognized for academic merit and then we could all go home to dinner?

We didn’t go home to dinner. We went out to celebrate our pop star and our reader. We, too, contributed to the economy with card purchases, gifts, restaurant visits, and gasoline fill-ups to accomplish these cash exchanges. Did the graduation industry create the multitude of graduations or did it respond to the social phenomenon of increasing numbers of graduations? Maybe the “haves” will become actuaries and figure it out, and send their reports to the “have-not” CEOs, who will set the rest of us goof-offs straight. Wouldn’t that be an accomplishment?

Editor’s note: Jo E. Prout says she is the recipient of boxfuls of meaningless awards and years of therapy

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